Monday, February 26, 2007

Phantoms in the Brain: V.S. Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain took quite a while for me to read—and only half the reason is that I was out of action for a few days for personal reasons. The subject is not something I am completely au fait with. But fortunately, Dr. Ramachandran makes it easy, thanks to his storytelling style and his ability to explain the complex workings of the brain in simple terms.

The key to enjoying Phantoms in the Brain lies in accepting this premise that Dr. Ramachandran makes in the preface.

I think it’s fair to say that, in neurology, most of the major discoveries that have withstood the test of time were, in fact, based initially on single-case studies and demonstrations. More was gleaned about memory from a few days studying a patient called H.M. than was gleaned from previous decades of research averaging data on many subjects.

This emphasis on individual case studies, while potentially flying in the face of research-based data-backed analysis, is perhaps a tenet that differentiates biological research from most other. And it is this focus that also makes Phantoms eminently readable and understandable for a layman like me.

Another endearing feature of Dr. Ramachandran’s approach to his profession is the simplicity with which he approaches it—his preference for simple tools of everyday use, like mirrors, cotton swabs, gloves, and the like. Simple, interesting, relatable.

And a third reason I like the author—he believes that “being a medical scientist is not all that different from being a sleuth.” For a crime fiction fan like me, I don’t need much more than that to dig into a book like this.

However, remember this is non-fiction: so do be prepared for the odd literary flaw in the writing—the humor, while earthy, is self-conscious at times and tries a bit too hard at others; the language is a bit repetitive in terms of word usage; and the author is a bit too over-present in the writing. But you’ll gladly accept all these considering the subject matter and the manner in which Dr. Ramachandran has handled it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver

I almost felt embarrassed and guilty reading this book. It was like invading Eva’s thoughts, shadowing her, being a fly in the wall as her life unfolded. May be that’s the reason I’m reviewing it almost as soon as I'm done reading it. (Usually I let a book linger in my head for almost a week before I hit the review file.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of Kevin Khatchadourian, a teenager who kills seven of his high school mates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker on a Thursday afternoon (the very reference to the event as just Thursday [always italicized] is chilling). Eva Khatchadourian, the mother (“I work for a travel agency, and my son is a murderer”), writes a series of letters to the father, Franklin Plaskett; these letters form the book.

An epistolatory novel (or any first person narrative, for that matter) runs the risk of becoming a hyperactive exercise in navel-gazing (even if by a fictitious character), but the format and the tone Lionel Shriver manages make Kevin an absolute stunner.

A second risk with the format is that it negates the absence of a second perspective. And especially in a story like this, you’re tempted to understand at least Kevin’s perspective, if not Franklin’s as well. Thankfully, Eva manages to get at least Kevin’s perspective with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Her inability to get close enough to Kevin shines through when she tries to understand him by surreptitiously invading his room and discovering him through the contents of it.

Was this what it looked like inside his head? Or was the room, too, a kind of screen saver? Just add seascape above the bed, and it looked like an unoccupied unit at a Quality Inn. Not a photograph at his bedside, nor keepsake on his bureau—the surfaces were slick and absent. How much I’d have preferred to walk into a hellhole jangling with heavy-metal, lurid with Playboy centerfolds, fetid from muddy sweats, and crusty with year-old tuna sandwiches. That was the kind of no-go teen lair that I understood, where I might discover safe, accessible secrets like a worn Durex packet under the socks or a baggie of cannabis stuffed in the toe of a smelly sneaker. By contrast, the secrets of this room were all about what I could not find, like some trace of my son. Looking around, I thought uneasily, He could be anyone.

The narrative is slick, moving back and forth in time without losing focus, the little nuances are effortless, the self-references unselfconscious even. There’s even the odd touch of humor in the language and expression, which appears spontaneous, relevant, and oddly poignant. And while the twist that comes up later is not particularly unpredictable, it is chilling nevertheless.

We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be a book you want to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon; but it’s a book you don’t want to miss. For the sheer quality of its writing. But be prepared for the heavy heart it will leave you with. It’s an eloquent commentary on the bleakness of life, in the U.S.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Meaning of Night: Michael Cox

Why did I like The Meaning of Night so much?

Was it because of the dramatic beginning?

After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.

Was it because it began with a murder, and then led to a second, more than 650 pages later, with a build up that was as riveting as it was detailed?

Was it because it had a multitude of elements—romance and revenge, murder and mystery, royalty and poverty…?

Was it because of a multi-faceted protagonist (of royal blood, a self-taught scholar, a bibliophile, an investigator, a charmer, a murderer) who assumes more than one identity?

For whom did I speak? For the orphaned Edward Glyver, with a dead mother and a father who had died before he was born? Or Edward Glapthorn, whom I had conjured into existence on learning the truth about my birth, and who was the possessor of two fathers and two mothers? Or the future Edward Duport, whose mother was indeed dead, but whose father still lived and breathed, here, in this great house, not a quarter of a mile from where we now were?

Was it because of the first person narrative, that helped me understand the protagonist through his multiple roles, his motive and his methods?

Was it because the author had managed to evoke the period (mid-nineteenth century England) through the language and the setting, without being self-conscious, pretentious, and overly descriptive?

Was it because of the humor (“I prefer to believe I was pre-destined for grace. It accords far more closely to my own estimation of myself, and of course it relieves one of the tedious necessity of always having to do good.”) and drama that made for such engrossing reading, notwithstanding a not-inconsiderable bulk of almost 700 pages?

Was it because of the detailed footnotes and a serious sounding editorial preface, completely fictitious, written by an editor, who is but a character created by the author? (Little wonder, then, that the book was more than twenty years in the making.) J. J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction, University of Cambridge is my favorite “character” in Night.

Whatever it was, The Meaning of Night was definitely worth the read; it was worth savoring.

Notwithstanding the fact that the protagonist (I prefer to call him that than hero) believes in “the instinctive powers—the ability to reach at truth without the aid of reason or deliberation. Mine are particularly acute; they have served me well, and I have learned to trust them whenever they have manifested their presence.” Consequent to which, even the villain’s villainy is not too clearly established; what we get of it seems to be based on the protagonist’s instinct and reading of a few landmark incidents in the narrative.

Notwithstanding the feeling that there could have been a bit more detail on the other main characters, especially the villain.

Notwithstanding the irritating typos in the edition I read (hardbound; 2006; W. W. Norton & Company).

To know more about the book and the author Michael Cox, you can visit the companion web site. But better still, grab a copy of the book and read it.